For a few scant years, the challenges of climate change lay only in the future. The prospect of transformed landscapes and disrupted ecologies was a threat that could be – and was – easily ignored. Although atmospheric scientists assured anyone who would listen that real problems lay ahead, interest in doing anything serious about it grew at only a glacial pace.
Those heady days are long gone. Climate impacts are getting more obvious every year. Bleached coral reefs, longer wildlife seasons, record storms, disappearing glaciers, and rising sea levels are signals that only the most ignorant and stubborn skeptic can today ignore.
Alongside the catastrophic impacts of a warming climate are a number of other changes that offer a different kind of adaptation. These kinds of adaptations are more opportunistic. One example is the opening of the Northwest Passage to shipping due to the decrease in Arctic ice, cutting time and fuel costs off boat journeys between Europe and Asia.
In East Sussex, two of these kinds of opportunities can be witnessed within a mile of each other, both of them raising challenging questions for environmentalists who hate climate change but might have an interest in the preservation and development of traditional crafts. The examples raise interesting questions about what to love and what to hate about climate change.
On a south-facing slope within the South Downs National Park, a worn-out agricultural field three miles from the English Channel is in the process of becoming the largest vineyard in the UK. When completed, the Rathfinny Estate will be capable of producing over a million bottles of Sussex sparkling wine each year.
The chalk that sits under the thin soil in this part of Sussex provides the well-drained growing medium that the vines need. It also happens to be part of a geological formation known as the Paris Basin that continues under the English Channel and into the famous Champagne region of France. As well as being helpfully porous, the relatively light color of the chalky soil reflects some of the sun’s heat back towards the vines to gently warm the grapes from beneath.
But in addition to geology, the key factor that makes an English sparkling winery such an enticing prospect are the changes in temperature caused by global warming. Southern regions of England have historically been 1.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the Champagne region in France in July and August, a key period in which the grapes are ripening. Global warming is changing this difference fast. Higher summer temperatures and a slight decrease in precipitation are in store for Sussex over the coming decades. Both of these help make vineyards more viable. In fact, it may be that by the end of the twenty-first century Sussex will possess a better climate for growing champagne-style sparkling wines than the Champagne region itself.
The winery is an example of climate-minded opportunism. Changing global conditions create both challenges and openings. The word ‘opportunism’ is not used here in a critical way. The developers of the winery are clearly not in this for economic reasons. The hedge fund wealth that has enabled the development of Rathfinny provides far more money than the owners could possible need to live their own comfortable lives.
In fact, the sensitivity to environment and culture that the owners display is a model of ecological and social responsibility. Buildings use local construction materials, solar power fulfills the estate’s electricity needs, and wastewater recycling is done on site. Judicious tree and shrub plantings are improving wildlife habitat and interpretive signs dot the trails that offer public access. The estate owners have also taken care to hire local craftsmen and women into the substantial number of new jobs their venture supplies, they regularly host culinary and cultural events on site, and they are supporting a Wine Research Center at the local college in order to create expertise in art of viticulture. There is much to applaud in what they are doing, even if without climate change the vineyard would have been impossible.
Visible from the gentle undulations of the Rathfinny estate, about a mile to its south-east, are the neatly ordered plantings of Friston Forest. The two thousand acres of beech and sycamore woods were originally planted during the nineteen-thirties on land acquired in a two hundred year lease from the local water company. After a number of experiments with larch, ash, alder, and birch, post-war forest managers used Corsican and Scots pine as nurse trees under which the beech could grow. With periodic thinning of the pines and the beech for local use, the forest now supports a well-developed ecology and a well-used network of recreational trails. Fox, badger, roe and fallow deer walk silently through the woods while buzzards, sparrow hawks, and hen harriers can be spotted circling overhead. Over 200 species on the Protected Species and England Biodiversity Action Plan call the forest and its surrounding areas home.
It was during a visit to the local farm shop on the edge of the forest that I was astonished to see a handful of truffles for sale at the counter. They reminded me of the truffles I had seen in the oak forests in northern Italy the summer before. The assistant in the shop told me that a supplier had been bringing them in from Friston Forest where she had been foraging for them with her dog.
While the “summer truffle” (tuber aestivum) being sold in the farm shop has been harvested in the UK for at least two centuries, the more valuable Mediterranean black truffle (tuber melanosporum) has only recently proven to be capable of surviving in the UK’s climate. Like Rathfinny’s sparkling wines, this is a direct consequence of the warmer, drier summers created by climate change. Truffles can’t survive in cold or waterlogged soils. The chalk underneath Friston’s beech forest will become an increasingly suitable growing medium for the more valuable types of truffle as the climate continues to warm.
At the same time as these possibilities are opening up in southern parts of the UK, truffle production has been declining in northern Spain, France, and northern Italy due to the warming temperatures. Like many species affected by climate change, truffles are being forced to retreat north, creating new possibilities for some while snuffing out cultural traditions and practices for others.
Paul Thomas, a researcher at the University of Stirling who studies the domestic cultivation of truffles in the UK, finds excitement in the opportunities at hand. “This is one of the best flavoured truffle species in the world and the potential for industry is huge.” Indeed, there is plenty to like about this impending change. Truffles, either deliberately cultivated or harvested from the wild, could diversify agricultural economies, add an extra dimension to local culinary arts, and make a walk in the woods with a suitably trained dog far more exciting. They could be considered one of the surprising upsides of climate change for some people.
But what is critical to keep in mind is the massive imbalance created over who in the world might benefit and who might be harmed by the coming changes. Champagne and truffles are a perfect emblem of this imbalance. They are, after all, luxury goods and hardly likely to fulfill anybody’s subsistence needs.
Like newly opened shipping routes across the Arctic, these types of benefits and opportunities will often be available only to a privileged few. Meanwhile climate change will make the lives of subsistence farmers in Bangladesh and the Sahel infinitely harder.
Locally sourced wines and truffles may be a cultural delight. But before any celebrations of the upsides of climate change commence, we must continue to ask ourselves difficult questions about global justice as the world continues to warm.
Vineyard image by Rathfinney Estate Truffle and Farm Shop images by author